Vanessa Fox Discusses Search, Siri and Social

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Meet Vanessa Fox, one of the most brilliant minds in the interactive marketing space. I was first introduced to her at an event a couple of years ago here in DC.

In addition to running her own interactive agency Nine By Blue, Vanessa literally created Google’s portal for site owners, Webmaster Central. She just released the second edition of her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, one of the best resources you can buy to understand how search impacts business outcomes, as well as content creation and social media marketing.

Rather than wax poetic about Vanessa’s strengths, I asked her some questions about voice search, semantic data, social networking and more. Her answers are just amazing. And with that, here we go…

Will Voice Search Change Everything?

Geoff: How big of a disruptor does voice based search represent?

Vanessa: For the near term, voice search will likely not be all that disruptive but we’re in early days. The biggest initial change will likely be for searchers.

Search sort of snuck up on us and became ubiquitous without us realizing it. (One day, I was doing research at the library on microfiche and suddenly, I was sitting at the bar, idly getting every question I ever had answered as I was drinking my manhattan and I don’t remember what happened in between).

If we look back, we can some of the steps that got us here, both in back end technology and in front end user interfaces: the shift from “internet yellow pages” books to online directories that we could browse and search through, Google’s PageRank algorithm that took the manual work from classifying web pages, search distribution deals that put a search box front and center in every portal, AOLs push to get brands to advertise their “keyword”, which got audiences to shift their research habits towards keyword search, the consumer adoption of smartphones…

Voice search is initially another large user behavior and interface change. When you reduce friction, you typically see an uptick in user behavior. That we carry out mobile phones with us everywhere means that we take more pictures and we search more. That we can just ask Siri any question we want rather than type on those tiny keypads means search is even easier. That we don’t even have to take out our phone, but can just ask our questions as we drive down the road reduces friction even more.

Voice search also paves the way for new interfaces. What’s possible when keypads are no longer required? And that will lead us to entirely new technologies.

For now, though, most of the search infrastructure behind the scenes is similar to (or the same as) text-based search, so content and business owners don’t need to do anything special for the technology. They should, though, think about how their audiences may be approaching their content. Audiences aren’t always sitting down at a desk when searching anymore.

Social and Semantic Disruption

Geoff: How are social and semantic data shaping search?

Vanessa: Everything is converging. As we use our mobile devices more, as we participate more often in social media, we search more (it’s more convenient than ever, after all).

With voice search and Siri and the like, we can now just ask whatever we want as we’re walking down the street or driving in our car. All of these things are not only making search easier, but are changing how we search. Look at something as simple as searching for restaurants.

We can see with Google Insights for Search that queries such “nearby restaurants” and “find nearby restaurants” have skyrocketed (but searches for “local restaurants” haven’t declined).

So, platforms such as social and mobile are changing how we search and causing us to search more often. On the flip-side, search engine continue to work to present the most relevant and useful results possible. Part of that is personalization — what do *you*, the individual want?

Your social connections can provide one piece of that puzzle so both Google and Bing and trying to figure out how best to use social data to personalize results. Bing is pulling in Facebook information — what content have your friends shared, for instance. Google is pulling in data from all of your network connections, but in particular has focused on Google+, of course. This is just one of many reasons why everyone might see a different set of results for the same search.

Semantic data is one of many ways search engines can figure out what a page is about. Right now, the engines are using this information primarily for display (vs. ranking). Google has been ramping up efforts to show more annotated listings in the last year: showing, for instance, author photos and links to additional articles by the author, images, ratings and reviews, and the like.

One misconception with the announcement of last year (supported by both Bing and Google) is that you can use any of the structured markup listed as part of and it will be used by the search engines. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true yet. was launched as a framework so that content management systems could start to build it in, but so far, the search engines only are using a limited number of schema types. Before you go to too much trouble implementing the markup, make sure it’s supported.

How Search Impacts Social Networks

Vanessa Fox
Image by Joi

Geoff: How does search technology shape social networks like Facebook and Twitter?

Vanessa: We don’t really think about how difficult search is to get right. We’ve become so used to Google and Bing returning exactly what we want (most of the time) from the contents of the entire web, that we expect every web site to be as good at search. And that’s definitely true of social networks, but so far, their search capabilities are a bit lacking.

But they know their audiences expect it and so both Facebook and Twitter are working to incorporate better search. Certainly both of them (and other networks such as Pinterest) would rather audiences stay on those sites and search there rather than become frustrated and go off to Google to search.

Facebook in particular would like you to stay on Facebook to search for everything (the search box even now says “search for people, places, and things”), and does supplement Facebook results with Bing web results, but I don’t know that it’s changed behavior much (or even that most users know they can search Bing from Facebook).

SEO versus Algorithms

Geoff: Does SEO still work in the face of stronger algorithms?

Vanessa: True SEO will always work because it’s not about algorithms. It’s about understanding your audiences and solving their problems. The search engines algorithms continue to evolve to better provide the more relevant, useful results so the best way to rank well is to ensure your content is the most relevant, useful result for your audience.

Real SEO isn’t about reverse engineering algorithms and then adjusting page components to artificially fit a particular pattern. It’s about using search data to learn more about your customers and taking an objective look at your content to see if it uses their language is about what they are looking for. Certainly, you want to make sure that your site is crawlable and indexable (just like you want to make sure it’s fast and secure) but if you’re looking at the specifics of the algorithms, you’ve lost site of your audience.

The crux of my book is about exactly this — think beyond algorithms to what the algorithms are trying to accomplish. That way, even as the algorithms change (and they do over 500 times a year), your site will be set up for long term success.

Tips for Marketers and Bloggers

Geoff: What should marketers do to better create organic search data?

Vanessa: Look at every page of your site. What problem does it solve? What task does it help a visitor accomplish? Is it the best page out there about that topic? When you’re looking at keyword research, don’t try to create a separate page for each phrase.

Cluster those phrases into task-based categories and map each cluster to a page. Use the ways people search for the topic to evaluate the content on the page. Also keep in mind that with search, every page of your site is the home page.

How well does each page function as the entry point of the site? Does it provide a welcoming experience that has a clear heading about what the page is about? Don’t make your visitor work to figure out if they’re in the right place. Does the page provide easy navigation to elsewhere on the site? Is there an obvious and motivating call to action that matches what the audience for this page would be interested in.

Search engines want to rank useful pages. And when your pages rank, you want searchers to land on your pages and stay on the site, not bounce back to the search results. I find that usability and information architecture are crucial to effective SEO.

Geoff: What are some other tips you have for marketers?

Vanessa: SEO is much harder if it’s tacked on at the end of a project. It’s much easier if it’s built into the rest of the development processes. Add a technical checklist to web development and QA. Add keyword research steps to content strategy and editorial processes.

I talk about this a lot in the book – the hardest part is often breaking down the silos and integrating SEO into the rest of the company, but the efforts are well worth it.